Closing time

Can Edwin Diaz end Mariners' fans justified end-of-game jitters?

Photo illustration by Rich Boudet / Seattle Times
By Larry Stone
Seattle Times columnist
Published March 31, 2017

Time to push your Mariners hat to the side, slightly askew in the manner of a certain former Seattle closer. Because this story is going to shoot an arrow straight into your baseball heart, and maybe break it a little bit.

At least at first. Then we’ll mend your broken heart and send you on your way into 2017 filled with hope, because that’s how every baseball season should start. Call it the first save of the year.

Let’s reflect, shall we, on the sordid history of Mariners closers. Let’s do it because they finally have one in Edwin Diaz who looks poised to break the cycle of agony. And let’s do it because a little masochism never hurt anybody.

You could make a case that the evolution of the Mariners can be best told, at least partially, through their late-game relievers. Back in the fledgling days of the expansion organization, when winning wasn’t yet a realistic priority, zany Bill Caudill, the irrepressible “Cuffs,” was the perfect closer. Oh, Caudill had great stuff, but was better known for his zaniness, the jello-filled bathtub pranks and stealing the keys to the tugboat-on-wheels that brought in relievers from the pen.

As the Mariners tried to get serious, the guy at the end of the game was Mike Schooler. Talk about stuff – his was nasty, and he saved 33 games in 1989, and 30 in 1990, healthy totals for that era and practically unheard of for the Mariners. Oh, but the breakdowns – the six walk-off losses in 1988, still a franchise record; the four grand slams allowed in 1992, still tied for an American League record.

In 1991, when the Mariners finally had their first winning record after 15 years of trying, Schooler was hurt and had just seven saves. And when Lou Piniella took over in 1993 and things got serious, Schooler was released in spring training. His departing quote has become the stuff of legend: “All he cares about,’’ Schooler said incredulously of Piniella, “is winning.”

True dat. And too often, it seemed to be the bullpen that kept Piniella and the Mariners from doing it. I need only type the name “Bobby Ayala” to initiate a collective cringe among readers. Contrary to popular belief at the time, he was neither related to, nor possessed incriminating pictures of, Piniella; instead, Ayala had stuff that was explosive enough to tease you into salivating over what he could be if he ever harnessed it; and he harnessed it just enough to keep getting the ball, with often dire results.

The nadir was 1998 – a year in which the Mariners had Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson (until his July 31 trade to Houston) all healthy and in their prime yet finished under .500. Ayala was 1-10 with a 7.29 earned-run average, eight saves and nine blown saves.

As the Mariners built a lineup filled with potent, even historic, bats, the bullpen was a perpetual Achilles heel. As 1997 began to slip away on a path of blown saves, they made the ultimate panic move at the July 31 deadline. The M’s sent Jose Cruz Jr,. their top prospect and a future 30-30 player, to Toronto for Mike Timlin and Paul Spoljaric. If only they had stopped there. But the Mariners also dealt for Boston’s closer, Heathcliff Slocumb – Collective Cringe No. 2 – for a couple of prospects (tears, wailing, chest-beating). Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe, the former becoming beloved team captain, the latter winning all three clinching games in 2004 when the Red Sox finally ended their World Series drought.

Slocumb, meanwhile, would save just 13 games for the Mariners – though to be fair he did help solidify the pen enough for Seattle to grab the 1997 division title (prior to a first-round ouster by Baltimore).

Norm Charlton, who helped restore order to a muddled bullpen in the magical season of 1995, and then was part of the struggle in 1997, knows more than most the vicissitudes of life at the back end of the bullpen.

“When you blow a game, it eats at you and bugs you,’’ he said. “You feel like you let down 24 other guys. Griffey and Edgar and Jay and Blowers and Tino and all the rest went out and did their job, and you went out and screwed it up.” In 2000, the Mariners finally got themselves a closer who rated low on the angst meter in Japanese import Kazahiro Sasaki. “He was the one guy who was consistent from the day he got here until the day he left,’’ Charlton said.

Not coincidentally, the Mariners were a wild-card playoff team in Sasaki’s first season, and won a record 116 games his second year, with Seattle getting as far as the American League Championship Series both years. In each of Sasaki’s final two seasons in Seattle before returning to Japan, the Mariners won 93 games, marking the most successful four-year stretch in franchise history.

Then came the roller-coaster years, otherwise known, too often, as the hide-your-eyes-and-scream years. It wasn’t all misery, certainly. The likes of Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Eddie Guardado, J.J. Putz, David Aardsma, Brandon League, Tom Wilhelmsen and, yes, even Rodney, all had their moments. But many of them – along with such cameo closers as Brandon Morrow, Danny Farquhar and Carson Smith — whether through injury or performance, had enough flameouts to leave a lasting impression.

“It’s a tough place the pitch, the ninth inning, a tough life to lead,’’ said Charlton. “It’s awesome to have a guy like Bret Boone in your clubhouse who can make light of things, laugh at himself, and when you blow a save, laugh at you.

“You have to come to the ballpark, win or lose the night before, with your chest sticking out like nothing happened, for the other 24 guys to still have confidence in you and believe in you.”

Which brings us full circle to Diaz, whom the Mariners envision, in his first full season, as the bullpen anchor of the team to end their playoff drought. General manager Jerry Dipoto loved Diaz’s eye-popping stuff last year, naturally. He loved even more how Diaz reacted to one of his first blown saves, when he was the first one in the handshake line after the eventual victory, high-fiving teammates after they survived the game-tying home run he gave up to Toronto’s Jose Bautista.

“If you think the ninth inning is just like the rest of innings, you’re crazy, and you’ve never been out there,’’ said Dipoto, who has 49 saves to his own name. “When you’re standing on the mound in the ninth inning, you’ve got two outs, and you can physically feel the ground under you rumbling because the crowd is stomping their feet or cheering that loudly, it can really get you.

Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times

Mariners manager Scott Servais congratulates Edwin Diaz on earning a save against Oakland in a 2016 game.

“Once the adrenaline starts to flow, and you have to learn how to control it, it changes. Once you have to walk back in that locker room and look at your teammates the day you coughed one up. Because inevitably when you cough one up, whether it was in your control or outside of your control, that’s you. And for 95 percent of the guys who ever really pitched a ninth inning, the only time they’re ever noticed is when they screw it up.

“Edwin has that kind of charisma to be the guy that everybody looks to, the energy level, that makes it fun when he comes in a game. The stuff that can intimidate the other team, and the emotional resilience he needs to bounce back when, quite frankly, he’s going to have the inevitable downturn. He’s going to blow one. The fact that he can get off the mat when that happens. I think that’s what separates the guys that are going to have staying power or the sustainability, and the guys who are going to fly across the universe pretty quickly.”

The Mariners have had their share of universe-flyers. More than their share, in fact. Now they need Edwin Diaz to rock their world and make the ninth inning a safe and happy place.